Philip Roth’s Last Laugh
April 24, 2018: “Brace yourself, Ben,” Philip calls to say. “Our beloved Meatball has been downgraded by the Health Department from A to B. This will ruin them! People see that sickly green B in the window and stay away.” I report having seen something still more shocking at the Pan-Asian hellhole two blocks up. “I know, I know!” says Philip. “They’re sporting a ptomainish, orange-colored C. A rat in a tuxedo greets you at the door.”
He’s on to the next thing and hangs up without goodbye. It is gratifying to hear him so exuberant. But five days later he phones to say he is “poorly”—one of his old-fashioned turns of phrase. I say I’ll stay with him that night at his apartment. Around two in the morning I hear him cry out from his room. He’s in trouble. I dial 911. Paramedics arrive with exemplary speed but have trouble defibrillating Philip. I can tell by the way they are talking that he could die. After an infinitely long minute or two his heartbeat reverts. We transport him first to Lenox Hill Hospital, then later that day to NewYork–Presbyterian, which he will never leave.
My routine for the next twenty-two mornings is to walk from my apartment to Columbus Circle and take the A train uptown to NewYork–Presbyterian. “What news on the Rialto?” he tends to say when I come through the door of his room. Anything can become an adventure, even a ride on the A train. One morning, a strapping young panhandler enters the sparsely populated car I’m in and says: “Ladies and gents! Ladies and gents! I am attempting to raise some funds, if any of you prima donnas care to help.”
I report this and Philip throws back his head. “Oh, Saul would have loved that! He’d have used it!”
“Frankly, I didn’t see any prima donnas on that train.”
“Unless he meant you, Ben.” It was to be our last laugh together.
“Ligt in drerd,” he used to say of anyone dead. “Lies in the ground.” He admired this blunt bit of Yiddish. “Pity our erstwhile mother tongue, spoken by Ashkenazim going back to the time of Chaucer and now reduced in America to stock phrases. A European language that produced a great literature, now consigned to Borscht Belt gags.”
Like him, I can’t help imagining loved ones lying in the earth, as Yiddish would have it—the slow processes going on down there, down where there’s nothing but what’s called in Sabbath’s Theater “the inescapable rectitude, not to mention the boredom, of death,” where you’re deprived of “the fun of existing that even a flea must feel.”
Saul Bellow was certain he would see his parents again after death. Philip Roth was as certain he would not. This is one way of assessing the difference between them. Who does not grasp the fierce impulse to believe? Consideration of all the ages before you existed provokes no shudder. Consideration of all the ages when you will no longer exist is simply unacceptable. How can this immense datum I am be extinguished? How can Mama and Papa be altogether gone—simply gone? How can it be that we won’t be together again? How can that be? When Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace Natasha turns to Princess Maria and says, speaking for all of us: “Where has he gone? Where is he now?” Philip’s solution was to rename mortality immortality and declare himself indestructible till death. It’s not a bad gloss on what’s always been the ultimate human problem.
Strolling past the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle one spring day a few years back, we take note of the New York City Atheists, who’ve set up shop under a drooping tent with isinglass windows. Within are the washed-out unbelievers purveying their pamphlets and hoping to engage you in philosophical conversation.
“Why must the atheists’ booth look so sad?” Philip asks.
“Saint Patrick’s it ain’t.”
“The big money is behind the fairy tales. All those centuries of fairy tales.”
“Wish away the fairy tales and you wish away all the art, music, and poetry they’ve engendered.”
Whenever we’re walking and Philip has a thought, he’ll stop in his tracks. “Religions are the refuge of the weak-minded. I’d dispense with all the art, music, and even poetry they’ve engendered if we could finally be free of them.”
“The B-minor Mass? The Sistine ceiling? George Herbert’s poems?”
A dog walker comes past with eight or ten doggies of all sizes and shapes. “You see that?” he says. “Perfect concord among the breeds. The border collies admire the Heinz fifty-sevens. The Newfoundlands would make love to the dachshunds if they could. And why? Because dogs are wise enough to have no religion.”
“We had a certain amount of God talk at our house. ‘God knows whether you’re lying’ and that sort of thing. Was there no talk about him in your family?”
“None, fortunately. Our Zion was the United States. Our divinity was Franklin Roosevelt. My mother lit Friday-night candles, true, but only out of piety for her own mother.”
“I think the Romantics got it right,” I say. “They announced that God and the Imagination are one. If I had to declare a religion when passing through customs, that formula would be it.”
In another mood, Philip exempted “the great reality-reflecting religion” of the ancient Greeks from his censure. He writes in The Human Stain: “Not the Hebrew God, infinitely alone, infinitely obscure, monomaniacally the only god there is, was, and always will be, with nothing better to do than worry about Jews. And not the perfectly desexualized Christian man-god and his uncontaminated mother and all the guilt and shame that an exquisite unearthliness inspires. Instead the Greek Zeus, entangled in adventure, vividly expressive, capricious, sensual, exuberantly wedded to his own rich existence, anything but alone and anything but hidden. Instead the divine stain.”
If the Greek gods still existed, imagine the concessions they’d set up at Columbus Circle. Atheism would have to fold its tent and slink away.
In I Married a Communist, Murray Ringold offers a taxonomy of American Jews. Reading it you cannot help spotting your relations: “there are the affable Jews—the inappropriate-laughing Jews, the I-love-everyone-deeply Jews, the I-was-never-so-moved Jews, the Momma-and-Poppa-were-saints Jews, the I-do-it-all-for-my-gifted-children Jews, the I’m-sitting-here-listening-to-Itzhak-Perlman-and-I’m-crying Jews,” and so on. With lightning speed they’d shed the ways of the shtetl and made themselves pillars of Americanism. They knew the brightness of their prospects here corresponded to the worst event in thirty centuries of Jewish history, that they were flourishing even as their European counterparts vanished into the abyss.
“What this country has given the Jews—” I say one evening, and Philip cuts me off.
“It’s what the Jews have given this country. In the sciences, the arts, in medicine, in philanthropy. And do you know why? Because night after night, year after year, decade after decade, we’ve gone to bed sober. It’s as simple as that. How could we have avoided the resentment of our hard-drinking Gentile brethren? Did I ever tell you about my dealings with that dipso Capote?”
He had indeed and has performed the playlet for me. In act one, he is at home watching Johnny Carson when Truman comes on and explains that culture in America is under the thumb of “a Jewish mafia that runs from Columbia University to Columbia Pictures.” In act two, Philip, seeing Capote at George Plimpton’s a few weeks later, corners him and says: “I saw you on The Tonight Show and take the gravest exception to what you said.”
“Nothing I can do about that!” says Truman and flits away.
“What a dope I was to let him get off a line like that and vanish into his golden cloud. And me left to my umbrage. No, the author of In Cold Blood had no use for earnest, striving, Jewishy Philip Roth. My name was not in the New York Social Register and I didn’t know how to drink or even smoke a cigarette.”
Plimpton had been among Philip’s first Gentile friends. “I thought they’d all be like that,” he says with a laugh. “His sleekness and lightly held entitlement and insouciance were a revelation. His books of ‘participatory journalism’ pioneered something—a self-deflating style of autobiography born of supreme self-assurance.”
After reading in manuscript Exit Ghost, the final novel narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, with its eight-page excursus on George, I showed Philip an extraordinary photo I’d found. In it Plimpton is seated at Elaine’s, the now-defunct Manhattan restaurant famed for superior clientele and ghastly food. Revelers surround George. It looks as though the fun will never stop. Everything Zuckerman had fled from when he retreated to the Berkshires is summed up in the glamour of that image. “Here is the cover of your book,” I said. “This photo is full of the enticements that Nathan, that ghost of a man, gave up for art.” But the photographer foolishly drove a hard bargain and Philip decided against the image. I still wish he’d shelled out the extortionate fee. That would have been some book jacket.
Zuckerman, who narrates nine of Philip’s books, is overwhelmingly an embodiment of iron discipline and self-denying artistic aspiration. The young acolyte we meet in The Ghost Writer metamorphoses into the scandalously successful author in Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy. When we meet him next, in The Counterlife, he’s married for a fourth time, to Maria Freshfield, and expecting a child. Wives one, two, and three Zuckerman had dispatched with an airy phrase in The Anatomy Lesson: “the puzzle of passionless marriages to three exemplary women.” In The Facts, published after The Counterlife, Maria is still expecting. Seems like quite a long pregnancy. What it really seems is that Philip had no particular interest in Nathan’s amatory or conjugal life—to say nothing of his parental prospects. (Easier to imagine Garbo with a baby than Nathan Zuckerman.) He stands for artistic struggle, not love or marriage or parenthood, and the realist who made him quite casually dropped the ball when called upon to give his hero-narrator a convincing marital history.
In Exit Ghost, our hero, having earlier told us of Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk, now returns, Rip Van Winkle–like, from his long years alone to a vastly changed New York. The year is 2004. Zuckerman is so cut off as to have barely heard of 9/11. Everything puzzles him. Having consecrated himself completely, year in and year out, to the turning of raw life into words on the page, he is a revenant among flesh-and-blood people—but a revenant longing for one last outburst of feeling, one last bit of unwritten, untransformed, “real” life. Nothing doing. Experience is over for him, long since. He’s been impotent and incontinent for years, a man removed, as Philip puts it in an interview, “from all turbulence, from all his deeds and misdeeds and the distraction of the pursuit of happiness—the depicter, rather, of other lives, whose personal trials and historic travails come to possess his imagination entirely and feed on the strength of his mental energy.”
After several days he flees New York as rashly as he arrived. Thus Philip says goodbye to Nathan Zuckerman, his intricate invention. “Gone for good” are the final words of the book.
Passing by Columbus Circle on May 20, 2018, the day it became apparent that Philip would not recover—a lovely spring day, a gift of a day, a day lacking nothing—I looked in vain for our atheists. Gone for good? Their place had been taken by the Lyndon LaRouchians with pictures of their current hero, Donald Trump. (Three years earlier they were displaying images of Obama with a Hitler mustache.) I am a man slow to anger who, once there, may turn violent. Anyhow, here is what happened next: I ripped down one of the pictures. “Mister, please!” cried a LaRouchian. I pushed their “literature,” you should pardon the expression, off the table and into the gutter, where it belonged. “Call the cops!” another LaRouchian implored passersby. They just laughed. But I was not laughing. I was in a fucking rage. And grieving. And spotless as the lamb.
Benjamin Taylor’s memoir The Hue and Cry at Our House won the 2017 Los Angeles Times/Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiography and was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice; his Proust: The Search was named a Best Book of 2015 by Thomas Mallon in the New York Times Book Review and by Robert McCrum in the Observer; and his Naples Declared: A Walk around the Bay was named a Best Book of 2012 by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker. He is also the author of two novels, Tales out of School and The Book of Getting Even, as well as a book-length essay, Into the Open.
Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth, by Benjamin Taylor, published in May by Penguin, an imprint of the Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC Copyright (c) 2020 by Benjamin Taylor